Delta Airlines has been working to electrify ground support equipment GSE and airliners. In September 2010, it was announced that the Massachusetts Port Authority had approved a loan agreement that would lend Delta Air Lines the capital needed to purchase electric equipment for use at Terminal A at Boston Logan International Airport. This should be seen in the context of a host of recent initiatives to electrify aircraft (EADS, University of Michigan, ENFICA-FC, Intelligent Energy etc) and GSE (fuel cell drive by DLR etc).
The agreement originated as the Boston Logan International Airport progressed toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification at Terminal A.
"This was one of the provisions we agreed on that we would get electrified ground service equipment in this particular terminal ramp area, so that was an underlying goal that both Delta and Massport wanted to achieve," says Brian McMorrow, aviation division chief financial officer at Massachusetts Port Authority.
The terminal has now achieved LEED certification — the first of its kind in the country — and Delta had a timeframe in which to meet its electric obligation but finances became tight.
"They reached out to us to see if we might be able to partner with them and try and finance some of this project for them. As we looked at our finances, we thought this would be a good use of our treasury function where we had money and where we could proceed and meet this important goal," he reported. "It had all the right, important aspects of financing and environmental goals. It helped out Delta as a partner with us here at Logan airport. And we were able to do it, I think, in a way that allowed Delta to not spend an enormous amount of money and we would be able to get a reasonable rate of return, equivalent to what we would pay if we were to go to the market and try to borrow."
The total cost of the equipment that Delta agreed to purchase — 50 electric baggage tugs, 25 electric belt loaders and their charging stations —was about $3.8 million. Massport agreed to finance $3 million for the moveable equipment — the electric baggage tugs and belt loaders. The agreement includes a lien that will ensure the equipment stays at the airport. The agreement is for five years at a rate of 5.25%, the rate they think they would get borrowing from the bond market. Massport has announced that it is open to similar agreements with airline tenants.
According to Steve Tochilin, general manager of environmental sustainability at Delta Air Lines, it will be replacing three-quarters of its motorized GSE fleet at Boston Logan with the new electric GSE. Chargers have been received, as well as about twenty tractors. The rest will be implemented by the end of the year.
"We're hoping to electrify additional equipment in Boston next year," Tochilin says.
Though this is a significant increase in the amount of electric GSE at Boston Logan, the airline has more than 1200 pieces of electric GSE throughout its fleet. The airline is retiring older aircraft, modifying aircraft taxiing processes, reducing aircraft weight, and limiting Auxiliary Power Unit APU use.
The focus on all those initiatives has increased with the ultimate goal being for Delta to reduce its carbon footprint and there has already been a dramatic decrease because of the initiatives.
"We're down by about 30% from the year 2000 to now in total amount of fuel it takes to run our operations."
Delta Airlines has a long history of green initiatives involving electrification of vehicles. Many years ago, WheelTug plc and Delta Air Lines entered into an agreement in which the airline will assist WheelTug in developing a new system that has the potential to enable pilots to back away from gates without a tow tug, and taxi to and from takeoff and landing points without using jet engines. The new WheelTug system aims to reduce fuel consumption, noise and emissions in airport terminal areas and taxiways, as well as reduce airport and gate congestion that can lead to reduced ground equipment delays. Equivalent work to electrify aircraft nose wheels is taking place in Europe and DLR, the German Aerospace Center.
"Certainly we expect this to be a 'win' for us on the business side by reducing our costs, but we're also excited about the potential for removing some complexity from gate operations for our ground personnel and doing it in an environmentally friendly fashion," said Walt Klein, Delta's director of Quality, Engineering and Training.
Full development and approval of the system was originally expected in 2009 but there have been delays. Originally it was planned that Delta, as WheelTug's launch customer, could begin installing the system on its fleet of B-737NG aircraft in late 2009. The WheelTug system includes powerful electric motors in the airplane's nose wheel that will enable pilots to back away from gates without a tow tug and then taxi to their takeoff, or a remote start point before starting the airplane's engines. After landing, the pilot can turn off the jet engines and use the system to drive the airplane to its gate.
Further, the agreement gave Delta the right of first refusal to provide installation and maintenance services on WheelTug systems for itself and for other airlines that desire such services. Delta already performs maintenance for more than 100 customers and this could serve as another opportunity to continue to grow its maintenance in sourcing business. Delta has also acquired warrants to buy 600,000 shares of WheelTug plc at an average price of $36 per share.
Isaiah W. Cox, president of WheelTug, said at the time, "We are delighted that Delta is our U.S. development partner. Delta's passengers will be the first to realize its benefits, and we believe that over time WheelTug will provide welcome benefits to all fliers, airlines, and airports."
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